The conscious competence model is a key part of personal development because it shows the stages that are potential traps for us. There are four stages, but it is the first two stages which tend to be banana skins for most people’s personal development.
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
This is the first of the stumbling blocks. A lot of people never even realise which areas they are weak in. They never sit down and actually think about how they can improve. These are the areas which fit in to Johari Window 2 – “Weaknesses which others can see, but to which I am blind” – and Johari window 4 – “Weaknesses which are unknown to others and to me”. One way to get from stage 1 (unconscious Incompetence) to stage 2 (conscious incompetence) is to employ some serious system 2 thinking and metacognition. A personal development plan or personal SWOT analysis can help to identify areas of weakness.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
If it is forgivable to be stuck in stage 1, simply because we often don’t realise that we are incompetent, then stage 2 is where we have to make a choice. Do I want to be the person I am capable of becoming, or not? Conscious incompetence is such a dangerous stage because it’s your choice whether your not to move from conscious incompetence to stage 3 – conscious competence. The big problem is that many people don’t like to admit that they have a weakness, they see it as a failure. Therefore, they adopt an emotionally oriented strategy of coping with failure and therefore rationalise in order to avoid admitting that there is an area in which they need improve. The tragedy is that this fear of looking like a failure means that they don’t deal with the weaknesses that EVERYBODY has. Consequently, these weaknesses never improve, so failure and fear of appearing to be a failure becomes a vicious circle. Fear of looking like a failure means they look like a failure! The only way to beat this need to rationalise is to be honest with ourselves. There is no shame in having a weakness, EVERYONE has some weaknesses. The difference between peak performers and underperformers is that they are honest about their shortcomings and work to improve them – they constantly identify and work on these areas and move from stage 2, to stage 3 – conscious competence.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
One you have identified your weakness and have worked to improve it, you will move into stage 3 – conscious competence. You can do something and you know you can do it. At first, it will be a conscious process, like when you first learn to drive and you have to think about changing gear etc. (this is system 2 thinking). Eventually, as you become more competent, you will start to do things automatically and it will become part of who you are so you won’t actually think about the fact that you can do something – you just do it naturally, without really giving it a second thought. You have moved to stage 4 – unconscious competence.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
This is the stage of true skill. You are now working on system 1 thinking – instinctive and often indescribable (see also tacit knowledge). You don’t think about how you do something, you just do it. You are in a particular state and it just flows naturally. This is how the best sportsmen operate when they play their best – they are “In the Zone”. They don’t think about what they are doing, thinking too much can actually decrease performance. However, if they go through a period of bad form, they move back to system 2 thinking and conscious incompetence and work on their game until they improve. This is similar to the Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze model of change. The fact that top performers in sport and business can move back and forth through the stages of competence is a contributing factor in their success. They do what unsuccessful people rarely do – face the problem head on; candidly, logically and strategically. Their goal is to feel better by improvement, rather than to feel better by denial.
So, if you want to get to the top of your game, whether that’s being a great mother, father, friend, businessmen, employee, sportsmen or whatever. Look for areas in which you need to improve, but don’t beat yourself up about it and don’t deny them either. Be honest, find ways to improve and apply what you learn – you’ll be amazed how quickly you move through stages 1 to 4 and your life will become more fulfilling as you become happier and reach your potential.
Danny Sroda is owner and Lead Trainer at Reach Corporate Fitness for Business.